Mirror’s Edge: Pixilated Beauty, Race, and Stereotypes

by Latoya Peterson

I’ve been checking for the game Mirror’s Edge for a while, since the first stills dropped a few months ago. There are a lot of things that excite me about the game: tapping into the parkour experience, rolling through a first person landscape without it being a shooter, a provocative plot.

However, I would be lying if I didn’t say I was geeked about a woman of color protagonist – and one who has a character design which reflects the environment she works within.

However, I haven’t yet played Mirror’s Edge because of what I am calling the If You Give a Gamer a Cookie New Console conundrum.* So, I’ve been keeping my gaming excitement on a low simmer. Well, I was, until I clicked over to Feministe.

And as always, Hollyhas got the gaming goods.

Mirror’s Edge is at its heart a game about parkour, the athletic art of moving between two points as rapidly as possible, using nothing but your body and features of the environment. The game’s protagonist is Faith, an Asian-American courier with a knack for hurling herself into harm’s way. Like a lot of parkour enthusiasts, she spends a lot of time on rooftops, and Mirror’s Edge is largely about jumping, vaulting, climbing, pushing off of walls, rolling as Faith falls from great heights, and other almost-impossible seeming feats of gravity defiance.

I swear, I have to bite my finger from screaming at this gameplay. But Holly’s post also sheds some interesting light on a racial nuance in the conversation surrounding Mirror’s Edge:

Even when you do see her in ads, mirrors, and cutscenes, Faith has a wiry, androgynous form suited to someone who runs and climbs for a living. Her clothing is utilitarian, not decorative, and her style of movement is closer to the efficiency of parkour than the aesthetics of free running. Tom Farrer, the producer of the game, was recently quoted about her character design:

    We’ve spent time in developing Faith. And the important thing for us was that she was human, that she was more real.

    We really wanted to get away from the typical portrayal of women in games, that they’re all just kind of tits and ass in a steel bikini. We wanted her to look athletic and fit and strong [enough] that she could do the things that she’s doing.

    We wanted her to be attractive, but we didn’t want her to be a supermodel. We wanted her to be approachable and far more real. It was just kind of depressing that someone thinks it would be better if Faith was a 12-year-old with a boob job. That was kind of what that image looked to me. [...] To be honest, I found it kind of sad.

Farrer is talking about a fan-made image that started making the rounds six weeks ago, created by a Korean gamer who felt that the character design was a Western stereotype of Asian women, and didn’t cater to “Asian tastes” enough. Here’s the comparison:

Guess which one is supposed to represent “asian tastes?” Refreshingly, the response from the gamer community has largely been in favor of the original Faith, with a healthy smattering of “uh, I’m Asian and I prefer the one on the left, OK?” I can’t give people TOO much credit for being creeped out by the combination of D-cups with a little girl face, it’s like getting the “yay, you’re not a pedophile” award. Even hardcore gamers like variety, and a change of pace from the usual improbably red-headed loincloth-clad Chinese girls with giant swords for something slightly more realistic. (As a side note I can see the point about stereotypes in that Faith’s eye shape is highlighted and then accentauted by makeup, and “lithe and wiry” is the usual body type that’s paired up with Asian ethnicities… but the boobs and the anime-cutie face? Come on. I hope it was a tongue-in-cheek joke, which is what some are saying.)

Some comments on other sites have gone so far as to say that a less-sexy character design is responsible for the relatively low sales of Mirror’s Edge, but I’m not really sure how that could play such a huge part given that you don’t actually see the character in the game. If anything, I suspect it’s more that the concept of the game, a true 3D platformer that’s not billed as a fantasy adventure, is a little too unfamiliar for many holiday shoppers. It’s a shame, really. Parkour has been popping up all over pop culture lately, from action-packed television ads to the villains in the latest Die Hard film and other games like Assassin’s Creed. But Mirror’s Edge is the first to really nail the experience, and the result is fantastic gameplay.

Checking a couple of the online conversations about the two images (follow the link only if you are accustomed to gaming blog conversations – they trend toward sexist/racist/ableist), I’m intrigued by why so many gamers found Faith’s original image ugly. She is compared to Lucy Liu, called “FOBBY,” said her face is “too old” to be attractive, and often termed “masculine.”

Other gamers mentioned and interesting point (that Holly referred to in her original post) – Faith’s original form is too exoticized to represent an Asian American woman. The consensus was essentially her eyes are too small and her cheekbones are too high to realistically represent an Asian woman. Many of those commenters remarked that the second image was more realistic in how Asian women really look.

Other respondents to the thread noted how there is also an interesting shift in the power dynamics between the first and the second image. The first Faith looks angry, forceful, and competent. The second Faith looks more vulnerable, innocent, and slightly insecure. Some respondents even chalked this up to an East vs. West divide.

And, a few intrepid commenters pointed out how threads like that one lead to blatant stereotyping of entire groups.

What do you think readers?

*The conundrum goes like this: If you give a gamer a new console, she’s going to ask for a better TV, with which to appreciate the better graphics. And she will ask for a new entertainment center, to house the new games, console, and TV. And then, she will ask for a new couch, which will accommodate stretching out during long gaming sessions. And then she will realize that she still hasn’t bought a dining room table for her spartan apartment. And then she realizes she has a lot of expenses coming up and about twelve other games for the PS2 waiting in her Gamefly queue, so she decides to be happy with what she has and be a responsible adult. And that works until she sees a cool trailer for a new PS3 game, which makes her want a new console…